'American Idol': No country for old men
As long military campaigns drag on, there comes a point when out of the frenzied mass, individuals emerge and change the contours of the battle. At some point, (at least in the poetic version) war ceases to shape soldiers; soldiers begin to shape the war. Achilles puts aside his sulk, steps forward and Troy is doomed.
In the early weeks of "Idol" we saw each contestant as through a glass darkly. With the huge number of songs to be sung every night through the auditions, the top 24 and the early weeks of the 12, each contestant had only seconds of non-singing stage time. We were forced to read into the smallest gestures, such as the odd smile to Ryan.
The contestants -- overwhelmed by the machine -- were at their most guarded and unrevealing.
But as we draw down to the final seven, at last there is leisure time to spend with each contestant. And that can be very dangerous -– or at the very least, add an element that changes what is still anyone’s fight.
On Country Night, the contestants seemed the most relaxed and comfortable they have yet, inspiring their fans to ever greater passions. In the Idoldome at CBS studios, the crowds become more hysterical each week. On Tuesday night, the screaming that followed Blake’s performance (primarily from the adolescent girls in the crowd) grew so intense that Bill, the warm-up guy, was seen on the sidelines desperately trying to wave the crowd down.
In past weeks the studio crowd had shown an icy front of glacial hostility to antihero Sanjaya. But a pro-Sanjaya faction seemed to be infiltrating the studio; during the judging period following Sanjaya’s performance the audience was on the verge of erupting into civil war as the booers and the judges’ supporters shrieked at one another from across the bleachers. (Meanwhile, Debbie the stage manager very astutely pointed out to visiting former contestant Constantine Maroulis that Sanjaya had stolen his “eye thing”.)
And so as we enter these last battles, the level of passions each contestant can ignite in his or her fans will decide the competition.
Looming over this season, referred to in offhand comments by the judges, in interviews and private conversations with the crew, is the sense that an injustice occurred last year with the victory of Taylor Hicks – that the best singer (or even the second best singer) had not won; that the show had become a popularity contest. Hence the constant assertions that “this is a singing competition.” (The gray-haired elephant in the Idoldome is the Hicks return –- he has not yet indulged the show with his presence and thus far no performance has been announced. For that matter, last year’s other two break out stars –- Katherine McPhee and Chris Daughtry have not stopped by, although Daughtry’s voice is heard in each results show with his “Going Home” song.)
But with all due respect to the show, for better or worse, popularity will be the driving force from here. All (almost) who have made it this far have the pure vocal potential to get to the finals.
And so the question is: which Idols have stories compelling enough to carry them from here?
Traditionally, the small town (Southern) kid coming to the big city has been a proven "Idol" winner. None of the contestants seem to be playing that card specifically, which almost casts the race without an incumbent.
A brief survey of what the remaining seven bring to the table in the personal story department:
+ Melinda: Her winning story is of the shy little back-up singer stepping to the foreground. But as Simon pointed out this week, she’s hit that note a few times too many. Which begs the question, where does she go from here?
+ Jordin: Bubbly, gushing teenager. With her infectious spirit, this could carry her a long way but with no other element, this has usually been a recipe for the No. 3 spot.
+ Blake: Urban for kids – with own charity (The Blakergirls) to prove his good-guyness. But is his persona too contrived to stand the glare of the klieg lights?
+ LaKisha: The struggled-up-from-adversity, single-mother bit. A compelling drama but one that brings the danger of too hard an edge for "Idol" audiences.
+ Sanjaya: The villain. How far will this anti-appeal carry him? The smart money says two, three more weeks.
+ Phil: The good sailor – Mr. Easy Going nice guy with the super-sweet wife to boot. A variation on the Hicks formula, which served him very well on country night, but in the Stacey version might be too one note to last.
+ Chris: Other than his Justin Timberlake looks, this low-key unassuming Hooters assistant manager has yet to show much in the way of personal story. Might be a good time to start playing up the fact that he lost a reported 40 pounds between Hollywood week and the top 24 – otherwise, ask Ace Young and Lindsay Cardinale how far pretty faces get on "Idol."
And Thursday night, one of these stories will prove to be not good enough as another Idol will fall.
(Photo courtesy Fox)